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Why is stress dangerous and how can it exacerbate addiction?

Why is stress dangerous and how can it exacerbate addiction?

Stress is something that everyone understands yet struggles to define. It is a complex subject. The same situation may be nerve-racking for some people while others stay unworried. For example, one person may have a fear of public speaking, and another one is super confident in front of the audience. 

Stress is the body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you feel danger, either real or imagined, different chemicals are released in the body to prepare it to take action. As a result, the functions of the central nervous system become honed. This process is known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response”.

The Blessing and Curse of Stress

Stress plays an important role in surviving. If we didn’t react to external events, we would be in danger. When working properly, stress can benefit in case of preparing for exams or another important event. It helps you stay focused, alert, and energetic so you can put in all your effort. 

So why does stress have a bad reputation? Why do people blame it for leading to problems with alcohol or drugs? Operators of the national drug abuse hotline numbers: free addiction help 24/7 reveal that individuals who call them often complain about disturbing, irritating, and disquieting situations they can’t deal with. Unfortunately, some people think that drinking or taking drugs can be a solution.

Stress response can protect you in emergency events. It increases muscle tension, a flow of oxygen to the brain, energy, and excitement levels. Because of this, drivers manage to hit the brakes to avoid a car accident.

But when stress becomes chronic or reoccurring, problems may appear. High levels of cortisol (so-called “stress hormone”) in the brain on a regular basis can negatively affect its functioning. It can lead to a number of health concerns. The most serious include:

  • lower immune system
  • muscle tension and pain
  • heightened risk for heart disease and diabetes
  • reproductive issues
  • mental health illnesses, including Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

The Link between Stress, Substance Abuse, and Addiction

Sometimes, people turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of reducing mental stress and dealing with other problems. At first, alcohol has a calming effect on the body and the individual reaches a short-term escape. The person may start taking more of the substance or using it more frequently to deal with stress. This becomes dangerous for 3 reasons:

  1. Stress response can rapidly move a person from the stage of substance abuse to dependence and addiction. When this happens, the individual can’t stop it easily. Unfortunately, addicts are prone to deny the problem and don’t rush to look for help. If you call an addiction help hotline in the early stage of dependence, you will avoid a whole bunch of problems caused by abuse and recover faster. 
  2. Substance abuse may mask the problem for some time but not to solve it. And the person is unlikely to learn better ways of managing stress while they are drunk or under the “high”. Meantime, the problem may develop and the person may face the consequences.
  3. Regular substance abuse increases stress levels as it impairs impulse control functions, emotional regulation, and executive learning functions. A person’s productivity at work decreases, they become unable to maintain meaningful relationships, and they can start experience health problems. So, the longer a person drinks or takes drugs, the more things they will get to feel stressed about. 

PTSD and Substance Abuse

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may develop in people after they are exposed to life-threatening events, such as terrorist attacks, warfare, traffic collisions, violent personal assaults, or natural disasters. In this case, the “fight-or-flight” reaction is on all the time. An individual with PTSD has difficulties sleeping, disturbing thoughts and feelings, dreams related to the event, negative perception of self, and lack of enjoyment in life. 

Research shows that PTSD can provoke substance abuse. A general population study found out that the overall lifetime rate of PTSD was about 8%. About 35% of men with a lifetime history of PTSD reported drug use or dependence at some point in their lives. For comparison, 15% of men without PTSD had the same problem. For women, about 27% with a lifetime history of PTSD reported drug use or dependence during their lives versus 8% of women without PTSD.

What Is the Way Out?

If you or someone you know has problems with alcohol or drugs, the first thing to do is to assess the situation. These are the signs that it’s time to call addiction hotline anonymous:

  • cravings and strong withdrawal symptoms without the substance, therefore an inability to stop using drugs or alcohol;
  • risk-taking behaviors and poor decisions;
  • worsening physical health;
  • mood swings;
  • relationship issues;
  • financial problems;
  • the substance of choice is a priority to almost everything and everyone else.

The first step to a healthy life is to call rehab. But it makes sense to find the one that provides treatment for co-occurring issues. If a person has PTSD or depression, these conditions may stunt the progress of recovery from addiction. They also increase the risks of relapse. So, get a few rehab numbers of the centers that can help to cope both with stress and substance use disorder.

Addiction treatment programs teach people to manage stress and treat their uncontrollable substance use. Some of the tricks they offer are:

  • Stick to a proper meal to promote brain health and healing.
  • Get enough sleep to improve brain functioning.
  • Avoid triggering people, places, and events in order to prevent relapse.
  • Engage in a creative activity to keep your mind busy with something relaxing.
  • Exercise as it boosts endorphins, so-called “happiness hormones”.
  • Practice praying to stay calm. 

If you need support, seek it. Why not discuss your problems with family, friends, or therapists, or an operator of a helpline? You don't have to cope with everything on your own.

*This blog post was written by Sarah Williams. 

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